by Miceál O’Hurley
LONDON — In January Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition Government announced they would be introducing sweeping judicial reform legislation. During a meeting this morning of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee several opposition members were forcibly removed from the meeting. The Committee voted in the affirmative of two bills, one that will give politicians greater control over the appointment of Supreme Court justices; and, the other which would all for a simple majority vote to override any decision of the Supreme Court. The bills will now go to the full Knesset for the first of three-readings. Critics claim the so-called reforms would in fact deprive the judiciary of its independence and subordinate it to mere politics.
Netanyahu, who personally faces trial over corruption charges, would be a major beneficiary of another bill in his coalition’s package of legislation reform of the judiciary. The ‘Fitness for Office Bill’, already passed by the Knesset, would make it nearly impossible to remove a Prime Minister from office excepting mental incapacity or a two-thirds vote of the Cabinet. Netanyahu’s many personal legal problems include indictments for corruption, bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing. Notwithstanding, Netanyahu’s Government making such changes to legislation at this time creates a clear conflict of interest and would make it possible for Netanyahu to assert some semblance of executive immunity from prosecution even if he were convicted.
Today’s protests resulted in Israeli security forces and police joining to turn water cannons on protesters. Israel’s largest labour union, Histadrut, urged a “historic” general strike. Calling on the Government to “… stop this judicial revolution, this craziness”, Histadrut union leader Arnon Ben-David spoke in a televised address to the nation. Ben-David added, “Stop this judicial process before it is too late”, pointedly aiming his remarks at Netanyahu. Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on Netanyahu’s Government to stop its judicial overhaul, telling the Knesset Israel has been “taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries”. Previously, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog claimed Israel to be on the verge of “civil war”.
The strike has caused Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to suspend all operations with the exception of landing aircraft already in transit. Israel Airports Authority Spokesperson Ofer Lefler announced that departures will be suspended immediately, although arriving flights will land as planned. Lefler said the airport expected about 70,000 passengers on Monday, with half taking off and half landing.
Throughout Israel an estimated 100,000 protestors took to the streets in protest. In Jerusalem crowds gathered outside the Knesset by train, bus and convoys of vans and cars. Several professional sectors have joined the protests en masse including physicians, medical workers, the tech sector and other key industry workers. In Tel Aviv a reported 1,000 children and parents marched hand-in-hand down a major thoroughfare causing traffic jams. On motorways, cars and trucks were used to block the roads causing massive gridlock.
Under Prime Minister Netanyahu Israel has hastily devolved into the kind of ‘managed’ or ‘staged’ democracy which marked the Russian Federation prior to Putin consolidating all real power in his Presidency albeit in defiance of the Russian Federation Constitution’s claims at Article 1., “The Russian Federation – Russia is a democratic federal law-bound State with a republican form of government.” Now, Netanyahu’s foray into depriving Israel of an independent judiciary has placed what was formerly the only liberal democracy in the Middle East on the glide-path towards authoritarian despotism.
Few observers realized in January that the legislation would create such protest across an odd coalition of Israelis from liberals to conservative Jews all whom fear it fundamentally undermines Israel’s separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislative bodies. For many Netanyahu’s power grab smacks of a consolidation of powers attempted in later years by Heads of State such as Daniel Ortega, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump and most notoriously, Vladimir Putin. Israel’s experiment as a liberal democracy in the republican tradition is squarely at risk.
Netanyahu’s coalition Government’s conduct has startled its oldest international partners. In his visit with United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week in London Downing Street went at lengths to stress that Sunak, “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms in Israel”. The translucence of the statement could be taken as nothing less than a stark warning if not rebuke for Netanyahu and his ultra-right wing coalition eviscerating Israel’s democratic norms and institutions.
Sunak’s warning was made all the stronger by the change in the character of the protestors outside 10 Downing Street. There were, of course, the usual Palestinian Solidarity Committee protestors. And yet, it was the presence of the throngs of British and Israeli Jews, a mixture of liberals and conservatives, secular and religious, whose numbers dwarfed those of the Palestinians that gave voice to the disenchantment Israelis feel. It was not lost on pundits that the very Jewish community that loathes to criticise Israel gave stark relief to previous visits by Israeli Prime Ministers to London by engaging in a domestic spat on the world stage.
Israel has no written Constitution leaving extraordinary powers in the Judiciary for judicial review. Likewise, the Knesset is not restrained by constitutional constructs normal to advanced democracies. While criticism of the Judiciary has been a favourite of the whole political spectrum in Israel never before has anyone suggested eliminating the independence of the judiciary by a simple majority of the legislature. The legislation would essentially give Government unchecked powers and with the most conservative Government in Israel’s history at the helm it has given pause for Israeli’s to voice concern.
For minorities who have benefited from the Judiciary’s protections they fear Netanyahu’s government would quickly ameliorate their hard-won progress so recently made through the courts. A coalition of LGTBQ groups, human rights campaigners, disabled activists and individual rights proponents have been the most vocal critics of the Netanyahu Government’s proposed judicial overhaul. Over the past several days even more vocal critics have joined the protests—the 465,000 military reservist upon whom Israel relies for both its internal and external security.
Today, Israel’s President Isaac Herzon called upon the Netanyahu coalition Government to stop its attempts to constrain the judiciary. Saying, “the eyes of the whole world are upon you”, Herzog, for his part, serves as President of Israel which has traditionally been confined to a largely ceremonial role. However, Herzog has been active in working with all parties attempting to quell the unrest that followed the Government’s introduction of the judicial reform legislation. Netanyahu has responded by accusing critics such as Herzog of showing contempt for the will of the voters asserting the electorate gave this coalition Government a significant electoral mandate.
“I turn to the Prime Minister, members of the government and members of the coalition: the feelings are hard and painful. Deep concern hovers over the entire nation. Security, economy, society — everyone is threatened. The eyes of all the people of Israel are on you. The eyes of all the Jewish people are on you. The eyes of the whole world are on you… For the sake of the unity of Israelis, for the sake of committed responsibility I call on you to halt the legislative procedure immediately”, Herzog wrote in a post on his official Facebook page.
Government Ministers were sent a clear message not to speak against the legislation when Netanyahu dismissed Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant following his criticism of the legislation. “We need to stop the demonstrations and protests — and reach out for dialogue. Any manifestation of refusal that eats away at the strength of the IDF and harms the security system should be stopped immediately”, Gallant said. Gallant is a member of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party. He previously criticised the impact the legislation has had on military readiness given the large-scale protest from military reservists.
The general strike is expected to grow. Civil unrest continues across Israel as more protesters take to the streets.